Releasing on March 23 in conjunction with World Down Syndrome Day, Summer in the Forest is a documentary portraying a few days at various locations around the world of L’Arche, a group of communes for people with developmental disabilities founded by Jean Vanier. The film focuses on a few individuals at a time in both France and Jerusalem to revel in their energy, their life, and their joy. You meet a host of wonderful people who have been rescued from psychiatric facilities that were glorified jails, and given a place to live and a community to experience life with.
But the movie doesn’t play like a non-profit’s fundraising video, or even “feel-good” or “feel sorry” propaganda. The film exudes joy and interest in its subjects, endearing itself not only to them but to their view of the world. The camera longingly gazes at the forest, at each person, at each house and room. It makes you believe that the world of this film is the good life; that they’re onto something that you’re not. It’s a freedom, and a challenge, to see the world differently and let go of the need for power. It’s a film full of wisdom, told by someone who actually believes it.
Midway through the movie, Jean Vanier says the crux of the movie’s wisdom:
“I think everybody has an experience about what love is, and that love is not power, it’s a meeting, it’s a relationship; it’s something that happens as we enter into a relationship where I’m not seeking a power over you, you’re not seeking a power over me, but it’s a coming together in a mutual presence. L’Arche is not a utopia, it’s a hope. Where we can bring people together. We can laugh. We want to expecting presence, and presence is taking time. Taking time and wasting time, apparently, to become who we are called to be.”
This quote narrates the a scene where the inhabitants of L’Arche load up in a van to go out for a picnic in the forest. The narration and the imagery work seamlessly to shout hope into our rat-race, and love into our constant posturing for power.
Summer in the Forest is at once a loving portrayal and a revolution. British magazine Spectator says that this film “turns the world upside-down”, and it’s hard to phrase it much better than that. The world is upside-down in this film and simultaneously feels exactly the way it should be. Catholic imagery is all over this film, on everybody’s walls and in the work being produced at the facilities. It is films like these that offer us tangible, visual representations of Jesus’ teachings that the first will be last, that one must die to oneself to find life, and that the quickest way to lose everything is to store it up. Summer in the Forest is a declaration of a truth we bear witness to; whispered through the beauty of nature, noticed in the least of these, and championed by those who would “waste their time” with those the world has no patience for. You could come away with the impression that the filmmakers have come to believe that truth. And if we’re lucky, we all might start to believe it too.